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A Tribute To Harry Sternberg (1904-2001)


The art world lost one of the great advocates of twentieth-century social realism with the passing of Harry Sternberg on November 27, 2001. An Escondido resident since the mid-1960s, Sternberg was one of San Diego County's most beloved and historically significant artists. The San Diego Museum of Art has benefited from the acquisition of many of this important artist's work, including over 60 prints and two paintings. (left: Harry Sternberg, Mountains and Birches of Utah, 1955. oil on canvas. Gift of Robert and Karen Hohen, 2001:16.)

Harry Sternberg was born in 1904, the youngest of eight children on Manhattan's lower east side. His art education began in 1915 with Saturday art classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and continued through to 1922 with studies at New York's prestigious Arts Students League. His career as a professional artist began in 1928 when he consigned a group of early prints with dealer Frederick Keppel in New York. By 1933 he was an instructor at the Art Students League teaching etching, lithography and composition.

Sternberg was an acclaimed member of a vital generation of American artists dedicated to exposing social injustices and offering support for an egalitarian society. His interest in the plight of American workers, particularly those engaged in coal mining and the manufacturing of steel, first manifested itself in the mid-1930s with a series of paintings and prints on the subject. It was these works that would first bring him to national prominence. During the war, Sternberg went on to produce anti-fascist works of art in support of the war effort. Sternberg's paintings and prints addressing the labor movement and the war against fascism and racial injustice are among his most memorable images.

In addition to his prodigious artistic output, Sternberg was an influential teacher at various universities and art schools and held prominent positions in many artist's societies. On the advice of his doctor, Sternberg and his wife Mary left New York in 1966 and settled in Escondido. It was then that Sternberg's association with the San Diego Museum of Art began. His extensive achievement as a printmaker was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum in 1994.

In early 2001 the Museum was pleased to add Mountains and Birches of Utah to its American collection. It was painted in 1955, during Sternberg's first trip to the West Coast, and was among his first significant landscapes. Its acquisition provides the Museum with an important example of Sternberg's painting style at the middle of his career, when the artist turned to "happier" subjects. The Museum is deeply indebted to the generosity of Robert and Karen Hohen who made the purchase of the Mountains and Birches of Utah, possible.

Harry Sternberg was an inspiring individual and artist and a close friend of the Museum. His presence will be greatly missed.

Following is wall text and label text from the exhibition:


Harry Sternberg: A Centennial Celebration

Artist, teacher, and political activist Harry Sternberg was born in New York City in 1904. His passion for art came early; by age 12, he was taking classes at the art school of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In 1927, while still in high school, he began studying at the renowned Art Students League in New York and started a teaching career there in 1933 that lasted 34 years. Sternberg came to national prominence as a printmaker, painter, and muralist in the Depression era and during World War II. His powerful artworks exposed social injustices, addressed issues of labor, and captured the horrors of war and fascism.

Sternberg made his first trip to the west in 1957, falling in love with its rugged mountains and high deserts. In 1966, on the advice of his doctor, he left New York permanently and settled in Escondido. He continued to teach at local colleges and universities and reveled in the unique qualities of Southern California's light. Still painting and making prints well into his nineties, he added landscapes and portraits to his repertoire and increasingly turned to autobiographical subject matter. "As long as I have an easel, paints, and good light, I'm happy," he enthused, shortly before his death in 2001. This display marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Sternberg's birth and celebrates his long and illustrious life and career.



This etching is from a series of three images that Sternberg created of men working in the railroad yards at Weehawken on the New Jersey shoreline. The artist would make sketching expeditions there by ferry from Manhattan, finding a wealth of material that would lead to prints he created throughout the 1930s dealing with the relationship of man and machine. The intense, all-over working of the plate _through which Sternberg makes a high-resolution inventory of everything from the patterns of the pipes and rivets on the locomotives, to the wood grain of the railroad ties and the textures of the men's shirts and pants_ is a hallmark of Sternberg's early etching style.


Nudes and Landscape #1

In this modern-day Expulsion scene, a nude couple leaves the skyscrapers of Manhattan for a rocky landscape. Their ambivalent expressions leave the viewer wondering _are the figures being forced to leave a paradise lost or are they looking forward to departing from the pressures of urban life and returning to nature? The treatment of the rocks attests to Sternberg's early love of the engravings of Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, which he studied avidly in the Print Room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


Seventh Level

In 1936 Sternberg was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to create a series of drawings, prints, and paintings showing the principal American industrial and agricultural occupations. He confined his investigations to the coal and steel industries of eastern Pennsylvania, immersing himself for several months in the lives of the coalminers in Mahanoy City. When he returned to New York, he made a series of eleven prints that emphasized the bleak lives and dangerous work of the miners. Seventh Level, the designation for a certain deep layer of coal within the mines, recalls the numbered circles of the damned in Dante's Inferno. Sternberg wished to point out the dangers of working in the mines ­ the diseases caused by the inhalation of coal dust, mine collapses, and maiming dynamite accidents that would result in such mutilations as seen on the man on the left ­ in graphic images that served as a plea for reform.


Southern Holiday

Southern Holiday is the artist's brutal indictment of the lynchings and the oppression of African-Americans in the 1930s. Sternberg described himself as "filled with anger and shame" as he read newspaper accounts of racist atrocities and treated this theme several times in powerful prints and paintings. In this work, Sternberg depicts a castrated African-American man about to be hung feet-first from a tree. He symbolized what he considered to be the decaying culture of the south through the broken columns, included depictions of factories as icons of economic oppression, and painted the white population, stripped naked of the civilizing veneer of clothing and thriving on the backs of anguished African-Americans.



Sternberg had watched the deteriorating political situation in Europe with mounting horror since the early 1930s, and campaigned against fascism as an active member of the American Artists' Congress. His personal fears of the rise of European fascism were justified; most of his mother's family, who were Hungarian Jews, died in the Holocaust.


Mountains and Birches of Utah

During the summers of 1957 and 1958, Sternberg taught at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Landscape, a subject that held little interest for Sternberg earlier in his career, became a source for extended exploration during this time and the inspiration for this monumental canvas.


Starry Night

In the mid 1950s Sternberg began to adapt the methods of power-tool engraving to woodcut, a printmaking technique that had never before held a strong attraction for him. From 1957 he began visiting southern California on a regular basis to teach in Idyllwild and found woodcut well suited to his attempts to express the strange, elemental landscape of the desert, with its spiky agave plants and cacti. This landscape is a composite of places miles apart from each other, the southern California deserts and the mountains around Idyllwild. The largest print the artist had made to date, its unusual scale proclaims the grandeur of the subject and reflects the artists' feelings for desert and mountain as sacred ground, and places of mystery, solitude, and prayer. The large scale of the plate is a challenge to print evenly; the most successful impressions have been done by San Diego's Brighton Press through a technique where only a third of the block is inked at a time.


Tallit and Tefillin

Sternberg was raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, sent to Hebrew School, and bar mitzvahed at the age of thirteen. Later, Sternberg lost his faith in traditional Judaism and became attracted to other religions and to the power of nature. The Tallit Series of woodcuts and paintings is his tribute to Judaism and his father and is an acknowledgment of Sternberg's deepening reverence for Jewish traditions as he grew older. In this memory portrait, Sternberg portrays his father in a tallit, the striped, fringed shawl worn by Orthodox Jewish men for prayers and certain ceremonies. He wears tefillin, small leather boxes that contain sacred texts written on parchment, which are wrapped around his arms and head with leather straps.


Law, Politics, and Rock Musicians are part of a series entitled Myths and Rituals. Composed of large, expressionistic, power-tool woodcuts, they comment, often scathingly, on various manners and customs in late twentieth century United States. Done by Sternberg when he was in his eighties, the ambitious series includes eleven prints, each roughly twenty by thirty inches. Sternberg did no preparatory work for the prints beyond a rough sketch in brown ink over a wash on the surface of the woodblock and his compositions would grow and change as he worked. The powerful imagery of the series and its critical tone recalls works by earlier artists Francisco Goya and Hieronymous Bosch.

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